Dartmouth Leader Tied to Animal House Vows Tolerance Amid Outcry
Less than two years after Dartmouth College’s new President, Philip Hanlon, graduated in 1977, the school got so fed up with fraternity hijinks it gave the groups 12 months to end all racist, sexist and alcohol-abusing antics or face banishment.
Now Hanlon, who as a student belonged to the Hanover, New Hampshire-based college fraternity that inspired the 1978 movie “Animal House,” is inheriting a campus roiled by a federal probe into student sexual harassment and once again grappling with a fraternity-dominated social scene considered by many to be toxic to women and minorities.
Since Hanlon took over in June, his old fraternity has been fined for serving alcohol to minors, apologized for co-hosting a “Crips and Bloods Party” and had a member admit to urinating from a second-story balcony onto a woman below.
“Let me make very, very clear that harmful, unsafe behavior, whether it’s high-risk drinking, sexual assault or hazing, has no place on a college campus, any college campus,” Hanlon, provost at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor the previous three years, said in a phone interview. “I’m committed to Dartmouth being a leader and finding ways to improve campus student life.”
Hanlon faces a quandary shared by many college presidents as they seek to tame fraternal organizations. Membership in 101 national fraternities and sororities increased 25 percent through 2012 from 2007, according to industry groups, including the North-American Interfraternity Council. Meanwhile, 59 people, most of them students, have died since 2005 in incidents involving the brotherhoods.
Dartmouth reported 22 sexual assaults in 2010, the highest campus rate per capita in the Ivy League, according to Education Department data. While that number fell to 15 in 2011, the latest year available, Dartmouth still ranked second in sexual assaults per capita, behind Princeton University in New Jersey, among the group of eight elite schools in the northeast U.S.
The reported attacks at Dartmouth compared with other colleges aren’t an accurate indicator of the prevalence of assault on the campus, and may have been boosted by the college’s efforts to encourage students to report, said Charlotte Johnson, dean of Dartmouth College.
The Greek houses at Dartmouth and other colleges have powerful alumni ties, and efforts to regulate them have prompted strong opposition and flagging donations. President James Jones of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who recently battled with parents and students over forcing fraternities and sororities to go co-ed, amid several other controversies, moved up his resignation a year early to 2014.
Two of Hanlon’s predecessors at Dartmouth were forced to back down after their efforts to reform the Greek system met with disapproval.
Compounding Hanlon’s challenge is that colleges across the U.S. are under heightened scrutiny for failures to adequately address sexual violence and harassment. In the past year, students at Dartmouth and at least six other schools have filed complaints with the U.S. Education Department saying universities aren’t doing enough to prevent and investigate campus assaults and abuse.
In April, students at Dartmouth said they received Internet death threats after staging a protest of the school’s response to sexual assault and harassment of gay and transgender people during an event for accepted students. The school later canceled classes for a “day of reflection,” and not long after, a freshman was arrested and charged with raping a female student in her dormitory room.
Hanlon needs to confront questions about Dartmouth’s reputation, said Mark Davis, a 1981 graduate and president of Dartmouth’s Alumni Council.
“Is this a safe campus? Is this a welcoming campus?” Davis said. “It will be high on his list to ask these questions.”
Hanlon has made it clear that he wants a campus welcome to all. His older brother, Greg, was gay and died of AIDS in the 1980s. Hanlon said that Greg’s experiences have strengthened his commitment to making Dartmouth inclusive. Last month, Hanlon revoked the appointment of Reverend James Tengatenga to the Tucker Foundation, an ethics center, citing earlier remarks the Anglican bishop had made about homosexuality.
Dartmouth’s fraternities don’t put students at higher risk of sexual assault, said Lou Spelios, a 1995 graduate who will become president of the Alumni Council next year.
“I don’t think you can connect those dots as easily as some people may think or want,” Spelios, who wasn’t in a fraternity himself, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t see them as the huge juggernaut that some portray them as.”
Instances of alleged sexual abuse at Dartmouth aren’t always linked to the brotherhoods. It’s difficult to disassociate the two because Greek life is so pervasive at the college. Just as they were parodied in “Animal House,” the private societies dominate the social life, with almost two-thirds of sophomores, juniors and seniors belonging to fraternities or sororities.
Hanlon said that his fraternity experiences were positive.
“My closest friends in life and the most enduring relationships are the ones I made here at Dartmouth and many of them are my fraternity brothers,” he said. “That motivates me to make fraternities and all our other student organizations the best they can possibly be.”
Dartmouth has centralized resources for victims of sexual assault and is adding a residence hall for lesbian, gay and transgender students, said Johnson, who as dean oversees student affairs.
The college instituted a sexual assault prevention program, the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative, emphasizing the role of the whole community -- men and women -- in recognizing and averting potential attacks. The Greek system has created an inter-fraternity network on sexual assault, Hanlon said.
Another campus program has helped reduce binge drinking, which has been linked to sexual assaults, said Justin Anderson, a spokesman for the college.
Some top schools, such as Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, have abolished fraternities because of their impact on social life. At Dartmouth, efforts to restructure or abolish fraternities have run into fierce opposition from students and powerful alumni. David McLaughlin, Dartmouth’s president from 1981 to 1987, recalled in a 1990s oral history of the college that he wanted to reform the system but couldn’t.
“I used to go into every fraternity house and the condition of some of those houses was really awful; I mean, it was unsanitary. It was unsafe,” McLaughlin, who died in 2004, said in the oral history. “I really came to the conclusion that probably the fraternities needed to be eliminated and that the whole system should be redesigned.”
McLaughlin said he couldn’t get support from the trustees, who refrained from challenging the conservative Dartmouth Review newspaper and the politically conservative alumni.
A similar fate befell president James Wright, who, one year after taking office in 1998, unveiled an initiative that would force all houses in the Greek system to be co-educational.
Wright, who had the support of General Electric Co. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt, a college alumnus and trustee, was undone by the aggressive campaigning of students who protested outside his home and alumni who took to the courts to challenge his proposals to change the school’s governance. Wright stepped down in 2009, having failed in his reform efforts. He didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
When Hanlon arrived on campus as a student in 1973, Dartmouth was divided over a decision the year before to let women enroll in what was for more than two centuries an all-male bastion. The most virulent opponents were the fraternities, said Nicholas Syrett, who wrote “The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities.”
Subtle echoes of that opposition remain, said Callista Womick, a senior studying art who said she was sexually assaulted by an upperclassman in her freshman year. Students stamp their feet when singing the words “lest the old traditions fail” from the Dartmouth alma mater song. Some students refuse to stamp because they say it began as a protest against admitting women.
“Most students don’t even know why they’re doing it,” Womick said.
Dartmouth’s diversity and its admittance of women for more than 40 years are “two developments that have improved the educational and overall experience on campus,” Anderson said.
At the time, Dartmouth was considered relatively friendly to minorities among Ivy League colleges, and some of its fraternity chapters that accepted blacks had fought with their national organizations over the practice. Louis C. Roudanez, the son of a French merchant and a free woman of color, earned medical degrees at the University of Paris and Dartmouth before the Civil War and went on to found a black daily newspaper in New Orleans. While one of Dartmouth’s historical goals has been the education of Native Americans, controversy has arisen around its earlier use of the nickname “Indians” for sports teams.
Hanlon studied math and in his second semester joined Alpha Delta, the house whose antics inspired the screenplay for National Lampoon’s “Animal House.” When Hanlon joined AD, as the frat is known, it was nothing like the movie portrayal, said George Bullerjahn, a lifelong friend who pledged at the same time. To the extent there were hijinks, the future president of Dartmouth -- who went by the nickname “Juan Carlos” because of the mustache he still wears -- was the voice of reason.
“If they remade ‘Animal House’ he might be the narrator -- the cool-headed observer who describes everything in a cool and witty way,” said Bullerjahn, a biology professor at Bowling Green University in Ohio. “He was always part of the scene. It shows how gifted he is. He was able to balance everything.”
Hanlon graduated in 1977 and went to the California Institute of Technology, earning his doctorate in mathematics in 1981. After postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1986, becoming provost in 2010.
In that post, he supported programs to prevent sexual assault and aid victims, said Holly Rider-Milkovich, director of the university’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. When a $73,000 grant from the Justice Department expired in 2011, he not only made sure the center’s budget remained steady, he expanded it, she said.
“He’s committed to best practices, to approaches to sexual assault that have been proven scientifically,” Rider-Milkovich said. “He was interested in how we knew that the work we’re doing is effective.”
Dartmouth’s culture is overdue for a dramatic makeover, said Susan Struble, a 1993 graduate. On a 1987 tour of college campuses with her parents, Struble was invited to a party held by a Dartmouth fraternity, where a male student raped her at the age of 16, she said. She never reported the assault, thinking that the episode had occurred by some fault of her own, and later enrolled in the school, she said.
“You think ‘I met my best friend there, and I love the place but it was still rotten,’” said Struble, who last year helped form DartmouthChange, a group of alumni, faculty and students to push for more action to prevent sexual assaults at the college. “That conflict is tough.”
Anna Winham, a Dartmouth senior, was sexually assaulted last year by a male student she met at a fraternity party, she said. While the male student was a freshman at the time and ineligible to pledge, he had been hanging out with fraternity members the same evening, she said.
“Ultimately, we need to change the environment so that sexual assault is unusual,” Winham said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at firstname.lastname@example.org